Friday, 13 May 2011

Surreal Shields

In Shields Sketches, his collaborative book with artist George McVay, James Kirkup notes the following: ‘[South Shields is] a town I have always considered the most surrealistic in Britain.’

On Tuesday evening I went to the second Annual James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Competition presentation ceremony and read poetry for the first time in my hometown. The prize, established two years ago to celebrate the life and work of the Shields-born writer, aims to champion new, forgotten and indeed established writers by publishing a pamphlet by the winner and a prize winners’ anthology for 20 odd runners up.

It was with some delight, then, that I read the email several weeks ago from Red Squirrel Press, the organisers of the event, informing me that I’d been selected as a runner up. In fact, when one of the judges, Kathleen Kenny, later informed the crowd that she’d been delivered a box of over 800 entries and told to get to work, I felt suitably humbled to’ve done so well.

Spirited performances by the three judges, Kathleen Kenny, Ian McMillan and Andrew McMillan, lent a well-judged amount of humour to this evening of tribute. The anthologised poets who’d made it across to the library for the event read their own poem and one by an absentee. The range of poems was fascinating ‒ proving Ian McMillan’s assertion that what these poems had in common was their ability to hold their own as fully-realised visions; to say to the audience, ‘I am worthy of winning this prize’.

For my part, my poem ‘Sunderland Stadium of Light, December 1999’ was selected for publication. A poem about urinary shyness is always going to be embarrassing to read in front of one’s family, particularly when much of the subject matter of said poem involves one’s father, but I gallantly strode into what a commentator later described as ‘something universal, that everyone can understand.’ I suppose if you can’t face reading these sorts of poems, you probably shouldn’t be writing them down in the first place.

The night was concluded in the self-proclaimed best pub within walking distance of the library: The Maltings. Much discussion was had with the Scots who’d travelled down, centring around Kirkup’s aforementioned claim, that South Shields is the type of place that feels, as one woman perfectly surmised, incomplete. We discussed everything from the price of the public toilets (free), to the ‘vanishing’ of old Marsden Village during the 60s. It’s always refreshing to hear people talk about your home town when it’s their first visit. New eyes see things differently; they do that elemental literary thing: they defamiliarise.

Interestingly, lots of the poems I heard were about place. From Kenny’s exploration of her dual lineage ‒ Newcastle and Ireland ‒ to McMillan’s remembrances of Barnsley as a lad, and of course the backing track of Kirkup himself, whose collection Marsden Bay was published by Red Squirrel, there was a presiding feeling that this type of poetry is important. I felt gratified, I suppose, reading a poem from my work-in-progress book which is all about Tyne and Wear, to be discussing critically the weirdness of this town that I inhabit, that will always inhabit me. I know I’m writing in a rich and deep literary tradition, and I’m aware that I have to bring that tradition on; put my own spin on it. Kirkup seemed to return to it in his latter years, let’s see if I can do him justice with this, my foray into Surreal Shields.

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